Tag Archives: New Perspective on Paul

Book Review: Getting the Gospel Right

GettingGospelRight

Getting the Gospel Right:  Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul, Cornelis P. Venema, Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006.  Paperback, 92 pages, $6.00 US.

This is a short little book dealing with an important, relevant topic.  Though not really in the Canadian Reformed churches, the doctrine of justification has been under debate elsewhere in the Reformed/Presbyterian community.  Most of this debate takes place in connection with the so-called Federal Vision.  However, it seems that there are also connections to what has been called the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP).

This book is an entry-level introduction to the NPP from a Reformed perspective.  The author is a United Reformed minister, professor of doctrinal studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and also president of that institution.   Getting the Gospel Right is a shorter, popular version of another book published by Banner of Truth, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.

The book is divided into three parts.  In the first section, Venema outlines “the Reformation perspective on Paul.”  This perspective essentially boils down to five key features:  1) Justification is a principal theme of the gospel; 2) Justification is primarily a theological and soteriological (having to do with the doctrine of salvation) theme; 3) the Reformation claimed that the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of justification emphasized obedience to the law as a partial, meritorious basis for justification; 4) the Reformers insisted that “works of the law” in Paul refer to any acts of obedience to the law which are then regarded as a ground for acceptance with God; 5) the righteousness of God is something that God freely grants and imputes to believers.

In the next section, Venema outlines the “New Perspective on Paul.”  He does this by laying out the views of three scholars:  E.P. Sanders, D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright.  The NPP has been critical of the Reformation perspective on Paul.  I think Venema fairly lays out their views in this chapter.  Because of his influence, Venema spends the most time with Wright.  He notes that Wright is unclear and obscure on certain important issues such as his understanding about the work of Christ.  When speaking about what the gospel is, Wright emphasizes the Lordship of Christ.  Venema notes that this emphasis “suggests that his view has more affinity with what historians of doctrine term the ‘classic’ or ‘victory over the powers’ conception than the penal-satisfaction emphasis of the Reformation.” (56).  Because of his emphasis on the question of who belongs to the covenant (as being the question that justification seeks to answer in Paul’s writings), “he does not articulate a doctrine of the atonement along the lines of classic Protestant theology.” (57)

The last substantial section features a longer critique of the views of Sanders, Dunn and Wright.  He believes (rightly) that the rejection of the Reformation perspective is partly based on confusion between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.  The Reformers never said that the Roman Catholic doctrine was Pelagian nor (speaking anachronistically) that the Judaists of Paul’s day taught Pelagianism.  Rather the charge was one of semi-Pelagianism.  This is just one problem among several that Venema highlights in this chapter.

Venema concludes, “Though it may be admitted that the new perspective has illumined some significant aspects of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, its claims to offer a more satisfying interpretation of Paul’s gospel than that of the Reformation seem at best overstated, and at worst clearly wrong.” (91).  I’m looking forward to reading the longer version of this book.   I can certainly recommend this one to those looking for a place to start in trying to understand the controversies that have beset many North American Reformed churches in recent times.

If I have just one small beef, it’s the use of Internet sources in some of the footnotes.   Since this book was published many of the links no longer work.  Since authors like N.T. Wright have a wide following, one can google the titles and find them, but it is a bit of a nuisance.  I’m not sure how a problem like that can be solved.


Horton: Wright and Justification

I’ve been slowly making my way through Michael Horton’s massive systematic theology The Christian Faith.  The plan is to write a full-scale critical review for The Confessional Presbyterian.  There’s certainly a lot with which to interact.  So far, my impression (after nearly 650 pages) is mixed.  There’s much good to be said, but also some frustrating aspects.  For the details, you’re going to have to wait.

Today I just wanted to comment on chapter 19, “Forensic Aspects of Union with Christ: Justification and Adoption.”  Thus far this chapter is one of the best.  Horton ably lays out the Reformed doctrine of justification and its biblical basis.  He also interacts with critics of this doctrine, chief of whom is N. T. Wright.

Wright alleges that the Reformed doctrine of justification posits the imputation of God’s righteousness.  Horton replies:

However, it is crucial to point out that it has never been the Reformation position that God’s righteousness is imputed.  First, this assumes that righteousness is a substance or a commodity that is transferred from one person to another, rather than a legal status.  Second, missing from Wright’s courtroom setting is the third party: the mediator who, as representative head, fulfills the law and merits for himself and his covenant heirs the verdict of “righteous” or “just” before God.  Although the one who fulfilled the terms of the law covenant as the human servant is also the divine Lord, it is his active obedience rather than the essential divine attribute of righteousness that is credited to believers.  (632).

A few pages further, Horton discusses the relationship between justification and holy living in the theology of Wright and other NPP scholars:

N. T. Wright pleads, “If Christians could only get this [doctrine of justification] right, they would find that not only would they be believing the gospel, they would be practicing it; and that is the best basis for proclaiming it.”  Thus, the gospel is something to be done by us, not simply an astonishing and disruptive announcement of what has already been achieved once and for all on our behalf.  Faith and holiness belong together, Wright properly insists, but the only way to keep them together, he seems to suggest, is to conflate them.  (641).

Essentially this boils down to a confusion of justification and sanctification, or, in more basic terms, law and gospel.  Horton rightly points out that Reformation theology has derived an ethic from justification (640), but it has not infused ethics into justification.  In the words of the hymn beloved by Warfield, when it comes to justification, we must “cast our deadly doing down.”


Book Review: Getting the Gospel Right

Getting the Gospel Right:  Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul, Cornelis P. Venema, Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006.  Paperback, 92 pages, $6.00 US.

This is a short little book dealing with an important, relevant topic.  The doctrine of justification is under debate in the Reformed/Presbyterian community.  Most of this debate takes place in connection with the Federal Vision.  However, there are also connections to what has been called the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP).

This book is an entry-level introduction to the NPP from a Reformed perspective.  The author is a United Reformed minister, a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and also president of that institution.   Getting the Gospel Right is a shorter, popular version of another book recently published by Banner of Truth, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.

The book is divided into three parts.  In the first section, Venema outlines “the Reformation perspective on Paul.”  This perspective essentially boils down to five key features:  1) Justification is a principal theme of the gospel; 2) Justification is primarily a theological and soteriological (having to do with the doctrine of salvation) theme; 3) the Reformation claimed that the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of justification emphasized obedience to the law as a partial, meritorious basis for justification; 4) the Reformers insisted that “works of the law” in Paul refer to any acts of obedience to the law which are then regarded as a ground for acceptance with God; 5) the righteousness of God is something that God freely grants and imputes to believers.

In the next section, Venema outlines the “New Perspective on Paul.”  He does this by laying out the views of three scholars:  E. P. Sanders, D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright.  The NPP has been critical of the Reformation perspective on Paul.  I think Venema fairly lays out their views in this chapter.  Because of his influence, Venema spends the most time with Wright.  He notes that Wright is unclear and obscure on certain important issues such as his understanding about the work of Christ.  When speaking about what the gospel is, Wright emphasizes the Lordship of Christ.  Venema notes that this emphasis “suggests that his view has more affinity with what historians of doctrine term the ‘classic’ or ‘victory over the powers’ conception than the penal-satisfaction emphasis of the Reformation” (56).  Because of his emphasis on the question of who belongs to the covenant (as being the question that justification seeks to answer in Paul’s writings), “he does not articulate a doctrine of the atonement along the lines of classic Protestant theology” (57).

The last substantial section features a longer critique of the views of Sanders, Dunn and Wright.  He believes (rightly) that the rejection of the Reformation perspective is partly based on confusion between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.  The Reformers never said that the Roman Catholic doctrine was Pelagian nor (speaking anachronistically) that the Judaists of Paul’s day taught Pelagianism.  Rather the charge was one of semi-Pelagianism.  This is just one problem among several that Venema highlights in this chapter.

Venema concludes, “Though it may be admitted that the new perspective has illumined some significant aspects of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, its claims to offer a more satisfying interpretation of Paul’s gospel than that of the Reformation seem at best overstated, and at worst clearly wrong” (91).  I’m looking forward to reading the longer version of this book.   I can certainly recommend this one to those looking for a place to start in trying to understand the controversies rocking many North American Reformed churches.

If I have just one small beef, it’s the use of Internet sources in some of the footnotes.   Some of the links no longer work.  Since authors like N. T. Wright have a wide following, one can google the titles and find them, but it is a bit of a nuisance.  I’m not sure how a problem like that can be resolved.


New Perspective on Paul and Recent CanRC History

I’m currently reading a dissertation on baptism.  One of the chapters deals with Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul.  Reading that chapter brought me back to an old article by Dr. G. H. Visscher.  The article is entitled, “New Views Regarding Legalism and Exclusivism in Judaism: Is there a need to reinterpret Paul?”  It was published in the Fall 1999 issue of Koinonia.

In the introduction Visscher wrote, “The so-called New Perspective on Paul surfaces time and again.  The effects of these scholarly debates even seem to have surfaced in an ‘Open Letter’ published in the midst of our churches in southern BC last week.”  In a footnote, Visscher referred to the periodical where this letter was published and noted that it alleged “an attitude of exclusivism toward other Christians” in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Dr. J. Visscher (the brother of G. H.) responded to these charges and noted their origin in the NPP writings of J. D. G. Dunn.  Later in the article, after analyzing and evaluating the NPP, G. H. Visscher asserted:  “Dunn’s conclusion that Christianity must similarly oppose all exclusivism (re Lord’s Supper practices, believer’s baptism, etc.) is unscriptural and dangerous for the life of the churches.”

A couple of further notes.  First, as far as I am aware, those who signed this “Open Letter” left the Canadian Reformed Churches.  They left because there was no room for their NPP-influenced views.  Second, the same article also insists that “the implication that Paul is opposing exclusivism in every instance rather than legalism must necessarily involve a further reinterpretation of Paul which jeopardizes the principles of justification by faith through grace alone.”